All entries for October 2010

October 14, 2010

Reconciliation of Youth and Society Panel at ‘Violence and Reconciliation’

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In the final panel of ‘Violence and Reconcilation’, there were a number of papers that talked about the violence of youth culture and how that might be reconciled within society.

The first was by Robert Lawson who talked about his sociological research with teenage boys in Glasgow. Talking about their reasons for being violent, Lawson discovered that, especially in working class communities, there was a code of honour, shame and fearlessness, which the young men felt that they had to adhere to in order to survive. I found this quite interesting, having grown up in a working class town in South Wales, and talking to Lawson afterwards, we agreed that this code of honour, shame and fearlessness can also apply to working class teenage girls too.

Jen Baker talked about representations of evil children in fiction and film. Tackling texts such as John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos and Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, Baker used Freud and Melanie Klein to present a psychoanalytic reading of the evil child and society’s fear of the latent desires and aggressive impulses in children.

Finally, Giovanni Parenzan gave an interesting talk on Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange and he commented particularly on the two endings of the book – one for a British and the other for an American audience. In the twentieth chapter of A Clockwork Orange, the (anti?)hero Alex is converted back to violence after being brainwashed by the Ludovico technique, but in chapter twenty-one, he returns to a normal, domestic life. The twenty-first chapter, however, was omitted from the American edition of the book. After the paper, we had an interesting discussion about the implications of this omission. Is Burgess saying that the violent subject can never go back to a normal life? We also talked about the fact that Burgess wrote the novel as a means to try and work out his feelings about his own wife’s rape. Women’s voices are remarkably absent from Burgess’s novel, however.

Panel on Cinema, Feminism, Gaze at 'Violence and Reconcilation'

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Sorcha Gunne and I recently spoke at the conference ‘Violence and Reconciliation’. We were talking on narrativising rape and revising scripts of power in short stories by Isabel Allende and Rosario Castellanos. You can see our abstract here Alongside us were papers by Andrew Hennlich who spoke on William Kentridge’s film Ubu Tells the Truth and Xavier Aldana Reyes who discussed ‘Contemporary Horror and the Mediation of Violence.

Hennlich focussed on the links between Kentridge’s film about witnessing violence in South Africa (made in 1997) and Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1927). Hennlich analyzed the words FOR GIVE which appear onscreen and questioned whether to give is an act of compassion or an act of aggression related to the Afrikaans word ‘gif’ meaning poison. Often Kentridge’s imagery suggests that humanity is troubling, e.g. the pig’s head wearing earphones. One particularly interesting scene that Hennlich commented on was the moment when the camera becomes complicit in acts of violence itself; Kentridge shows it blowing up bodies, an act that was based on testimony from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Even for the camera, it is impossible to recover those lost in the violence of Apartheid.

Reyes also commented on the legacies of violence describing the plots and motifs of some very disturbing horror films. The films discussed included Funny Games (1997), My Little Eye (2001), _The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007) and Untraceable (2008). Most of these films have plots relates to recording extreme violence and Reyes described them as Sadeian. Reyes also suggested that the films were not as popular as horror blockbusters like Hostel, because the plots are far more uncomfortable. These films reflect a wound culture, where people stop to look at dead bodies on the pavement and internet users are given the choice whether or not a person dies horribly.

We had an interesting discussion after the panel about the representations of women in these films. Reyes explained that in The Poughkeepsie Tapes, an FBI film analyst tells the other agents that after his wife saw a short extract from one of the tapes, she was so traumatized that she couldn’t let her husband touch her for a year. Again in The Poughkeepsie Tapes, a victim of the murderer who survives, Cheryl Dempsey, is unable to function socially and ends up committing suicide. I had a look on YouTube after the paper and found this disturbing video related to The Poughkeepsie Tapes – disturbing because half way through the “interview” with Cheryl, it becomes clear that she has been severely physically damaged. I actually find the representation of Cheryl extremely objectionable. All it seems to do is reactivate the same old scripts of gendered power and domination. From what Reyes told us about Untraceable, it seems that similar scripts are at work in the representation of the heroine, Jennifer Marsh, who at the end of the film (spoilers!) is caught and tortured before she finally kills the murderer. I am amazed that these exploitative representations of women are still being used, even if it is the horror genre.

October 13, 2010

Art Text and Violence Panel at ‘Violence and Reconciliation’

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The first talk on this panel was on ‘Caravaggio and the Violent Event’ by Eva Aldea, and it began by highlighting Caravaggio’s painting The Beheading on John the Baptist (1608). Comparing this composition to paintings on similar subject matter by Cranach, Reuben and Tiepolo, Aldea pointed out that Caravaggio’s version was quite muted and that even though there is less gore, his imagining of the scenario is more violent. This beheading shows an audience watching while an executioner struggles to finish off the job. Aldea argued that Caravaggio’s work was far more violent than was normal in the traditions of painting at the time. She referred us to Raphael’s The Judgement of Solomon, which featured a similar grizzly scenario:

In this scene where Solomon orders his soldiers to chop the baby in half and give half to each of the mothers who claim the child as their own. Raphael’s painting, however, offesr a staged, idealized composition, quite different to the shocking realism of Caravaggio who drew from models. Caravaggio presents dark spaces and the people involved are ordinary not glamorous. Aldea also discussed the word that appears in the painting written in John the Baptist’s blood: Fra. Michelangelo. Aldea speculates that this name refers to Caravaggio’s membership of the brotherhood of Malta, and that it represents Caravaggio being cleansed of his sins, baptised in the blood of the Baptist.

Next, Catriona McAra spoke of ‘Sadeian Women’, focussing on violence in the ‘Surrealist Anti-Tales’ of Leonara Carrington, Angela Carter and Dorothea Tanning. McAra (quite rightly) considered the dialogue between Leonara Carrington (Max Ernst’s lover) and Dorothea Tanning (Max Ernst’s wife) and discussed their links to Angela Carter’s writing. All three creators use the Marquis de Sade as a way of unravelling conventional ideas about the female Surrealist artist; it is his influence that encourages them to create ‘anti-tales’. These women don’t read Sade literally, according to McAra, but use his work to enable a rebellion for women. The credo is, I fuck therefore I am. Yet this is not reproductive sex that maintains women’s value in a currency of male lineage and power. Instead what emerges is dark poetry, dark fairy tales, the black humour of Sade. Concurrent with Carter’s idea of ‘wise children’, Tanning offers a vision of child women that resemble Sade’s malicious Juliet. Take for example, Tanning’s painting Children’s Games (1942). McAra goes on to study writings by Tanning and Carrington: Tanning’s short story ‘Blind Date’ (1943) and her novel Chasm (2004); and Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet (1974) and her short story ‘The Débutante’. In many of these texts, McAra finds imagery of defacing, self-portraiture and violence figured as a dog or hyena, as in the paintings: House of the Dawn Hare by Carrington:

... and Tanning’s Birthday:

Natalia Font spoke last giving a fascinating talk on ‘The Bloody Museum’, which is if course a reference to Carter’s short story ‘The Bloody Chamber’ and the aspect of the story where the narrator, the wife of the Bluebeard, tells of the works of art that is on the walls of her new home. This paper was particularly fascinating, because often in this particular story, Carter engages with art and its representations of women, and uses intertextuality to comment on gender. For example, the narrator tells us that there is a painting by Gauguin called Out of the Night We Come, Into the Night We Go, which does not exist. It does, however, appear to be an answer to Gauguin’s real painting Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?:

Another painting which is described as being on the wall is a vision of St Cecelia (by Rubens), which offers a picture of innocent charm. It is worth remembering though, Font insists, that Cecelia was beheaded, a story that hints at the fate of the wife of the Bluebeard. Another painting described of the Sabine women recalls David’s Les Sabines:

David’s painting shows the women trying to reconcile the fighters, suggesting male violence and women as beseeching supplicants. Font did refer to other artists as well as to illustrators of Carter’s work, but this is all that I was able to note at the time.

October 12, 2010

Surrealist Workshops at Northampton University and Cardiff High School.

While I was on a month-long trip to the UK recently, I managed to give two workshops on Surrealism and poetry, one at University of Northampton and the other at Cardiff High School in South Wales.

I worked as an academic at University of Northampton for many years, researching and teaching English Literature and Creative Writing. I am now a Visiting Research Fellow at the university, and I gave a workshop on Surrealism as part of my first visit as a Visiting Fellow.

I have also built a strong relationship with Cardiff High School. One of my first jobs after my undergraduate degree was working as a classroom assistant at Cardiff High School.

The workshops took similar formats: they involved reading some Surrealist texts such as the Beatles song, I am the Walrus , André Breton’s poem Free Union , and my own Magritte-inspired poem ‘Lonesome City Dweller’. I spoke the groups about the magazine Polarity for which I am contributing editor, and we discussed how polarities are at the heart of the philosophy of French Surrealism.

At Northampton, it was really touching to see some of my old students, and to notice how they are developing as writers. They were able to produce some remarkable Surrealist poems. I have chosen three that I liked particularly. Take for example Matt Bushell’s poem ‘Laddering Shot’:

Laddering Shot

Inbetween you sing
your arms a laddering shot

waving to the hello of timeless music
decayed by bones and fleshy fingers
whose words grip you like a gun
with a cantata tongue
licking your card houses
and match-stick battle ships
built and destroyed
by your love

by Matt Bushell

I love the way in which Matt works with words – it reminds me a little bit of another Matt – the Birmingham poet Matt Nunn. As in Nunn, the language in this poem is muscular and bold and ultimately convincing.

Amberley Turnell approached the task in a different way producing a narrative that is both public and personal:

Cue Applause

Forced blooms from a steel barrel
point teeth to camera 1.
“Listen,” he slams,
“I do this for your
Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!”

For. Our. Freedom.
I beat in time with purple stumps
lacing butterfly wings so they stay.
Sweet tea blisters into quavers;
music from my mother’s frown.
I roll to sit and the cat sweats.

By Amberley Turnell

I like the unexpectedness of many of the images in this poem: how the decorous blooms jostle against the hardness of the steel barrel and the teeth. A flash from a political broadcast leads us on the thoughts of a maimed and sadistic narrator, who find painful blisters rather than soothing tea. Debilitated by the guilt indicated by the ‘mother’s frown’, the narrator ends signalling that s/he is debilitated – shut up with the cat in his/her damage like a sweat box.

Like Amberly, Ruth Gasson mingles the personal and political in her poem ‘Kunar Province’:

Kunar Province

She reaches for the salt
knocking the pot and spilling crystals
into the warzone.

Singing of roses and rings
as the shots call across windows,
her salt drying to tears.

He sings of pies and plums
as he holds the monster close
stroking it to climax.

The scent of cinnamon blended with tar
suffocates, as she watches his face
explode into paint.

By Ruth Gasson

What I like about this poem is the mingling of familiar symbols of war with words and motifs that are peculiarly British e.g. the reference to British nursery rhymes in ‘He sings of pies and plums’. Kunar Province is, of course, a region of Afghanistan, but what Gasson seems to be signalling in this poem is the influence and attitudes of the people at home. The monster mentioned might be war, but it seems far from real, just as the exploding face bursts into paint, not blood.

There were other interesting poems that I am not able to deal with in so much detail here. Joseph Marion Bunn (laureate for Northampton this year) wrote some amusing pieces; Chris Davey presented a post-apocalyptic scene; and Chris Fordham presented some memorable images in his poem ‘A Common Song’, especially his description of ‘Bomb / pretty melodies spilling like blood’.

The students at Cardiff High School had less time to complete their Surrealist writing, but, nevertheless, they came up with some remarkable images and phrases. The students’ writing was based on a number of polarities which I stole from the themes of issues of Polarity: death versus taxes, arms versus song, and purple versus white. (These were made up by the clever editors: George Ttoouli, Neeral Bhatt and James Brookes.)

Working on the theme of death versus taxes’, Elliot Stockford wrote about ‘money moving with great stillness’, while Rose Malleson imagined fingers ‘stained with the Queen’s ink’. Livia Frankish described ‘money trees burnt and shrivelled’, while Michael Dunn conjured a sinister taxman whose ‘hat is the shape of regret, his jacket made of poor men’s tears’. Finally, Peter Davies pictured a tax office as ‘a room full of hats, each one finely rimmed and mounted on top of one another’. Ethan Wood, asked:

Which of these men ,
wielding sword or pen,
will lead us to the stars?
One breaks necks, the other nibs.

Fewer students worked on the theme of arms versus song, but a few did. Harry Greening described ‘a small black room, covered with secrets’ where a man is tortured by sound. Exploring sound and silence, Jacob A. Bryning offered the memorable line: ‘A black hole knows no rhythm’. More students worked on the theme of purple versus white. Dan Nicol described purple as something

that starves you up
laughs and carves
and spills your cup.

Amy Giles saw an illicit relationship in the theme describing ‘a painter’s hand smudged on her gown’ and the canvas ‘which holds no excuses, tells all’. Katherine Churchill offered a sensuous exploration of colour with ‘royalty rich colour running across me on the ground’. For Kathryn Roberts, the colour white is a prison:

The pure white walls and
Pure white floors glistened.
He sat not able to move.

Altogether, both of the workshops were inspiring and enlivening, and it was great to be back teaching Creative Writing again. I hope to have inspired a few more people to go back to French Surrealist writing, as well as more modern Surrealist texts.

Panel on Representing Rape and Abuse at 'Writings of Intimacy'.

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Representing Rape and Abuse: Papers from Binswanger and Samelius, Hallam and O’Hara.

Chris Binswanger and Lotta Samelius talked on ‘Palimpsests of Sexuality and Intimate Violence: Scripts as Transformative Interventions’. Binswanger and Samelius discussed scripts as having negative and positive potential, being fixed behavioural patterns and ways of rewriting or interacting with those patterns. Working out of Gerard Genette’s 1982 definition of the palimpsest and Abraham and Torok’s (1980) idea of cryptic incorporation, the presenters explored how survivors of violence that were interviewed used palimpsest techniques or layering to express their stories. Most interesting in this paper was the idea of public transcripts versus hidden transcripts whuch was taken from the writings of James C. Scott. Hidden transcripts were indirect, interior, personal, such as imagined speeches created after the violent event.

The next paper by Michael Hallam was on ‘Rape, Torture and the Language of Violence in the Writing of James Hanley’. James Hanley was a working class writer, sometimes thought of as inarticulate, though Hallam denied this criticism quoting Hanley’s comparison of the mind ‘like great forests to endless seas’. Hallam described Hanley as a chunky realist and discussed the psychic and physical invasions in the book No Directions. This book features a number of male rapes including that of a thirteen year old boy. Hallam described the power of rottenness in Hanley’s writing, which reflects the violence and shame of the violent acts described.

Finally, Sharon O’Hara spoke on ‘An Intimate Assault: Rape in the Writing of Joyce Carol Oates’. O’Hara gave a strong account of the kinds of rape myths that haunt Oates’s writing – usually myths that blame the woman for the violence that she suffers. O’Hara focussed in particular on the characters of Teena Maguire in Rape: A Love Story and Mary Ann Mulvaney in We Were the Mulvaneys. O’Hara argued convincingly that, in both books, Oates reveals the complex and biased machinery of blame that these women encounter.

Screening Intimacy Panel at 'Writings of Intimacy in the 20th and 21st Centuries'.

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Screening Intimacy: Papers from Peacock, Reed and Schaller.

Steven Peacock’s paper focussed on how within the big architecture of film, scenes of intimacy could emerge. He looked at two great films; The Age of Innocence (dir. Scorsese) and The Insider (dir. Mann), and he argued that the narratives of the films were presented in a way that made them extensive and intimate. For The Insider, Peacock analyzed the first meeting between the producer Lowell Bergman and the insider on US tobacco, Jeffrey Wigland, and he discovered a tension between intimate spaces of enclosure and dangerous spaces of openness. Particularly interesting was Peacock’s discussion of The Age of Innocence, in which Newland Archer is to marry May Welland but instead develops an attraction to the disgraced family member, Elena Olenska. Peacock analyzed the scene in the box at the opera in which Elena’s gestures are both declamatory and intimate. Elena extends her arm to Newland to be kissed, but her hand hangs there while he hesitates. They start to make smalltalk and in discussing her experience of the opera, Elena extends her fan over the spectators. When she does so, she is expressing her fondness for the place, yet it is also a gesture that claims dominion. In detailing the precarious relationships of Elena, Newland and May, Scorsese focuses on gestures that are both intimate and public.

Clare Reed from University of Reading gave an entertaining paper on representations of lesbians on TV. The paper was titled ‘The Kisses of Her Mouth: The Invisible Intimate Lesbian in Friends and Buffy the Vampire Slayer’. Reed argued convincingly that lesbian kissing is absent these programmes, or if it is present it is exploitative playing on men’s sexual fantasies. There are lesbian characters in Friends: the lesbian couple Carol and Susan who are made safe by the fact that they are mothers (Ross is the father).Carol and Susan are financially secure and professional and they do not conform to the butch-femme dynamic of some lesbian relationships. Reed analyzed the episode, ‘The One Without the Ski Trip’, which shows Carol taking a hair (pubic?) out her mouth, but nothing more graphic is shown. She also looked at ‘The One with Rachel’s Big Kiss’, which features an exploitative kiss between Rachel and an ex-college friend. In Buffy, Willow and Tara are the sole gay couple; they are not ‘visually obvious’ lesbians and they are aesthetically similar. Reed analyzed the episode ‘New Moon Rising’, where the lesbian kiss between Willow and Tara is hidden when they blow out a candle. ‘Touched’, too, shows Willow and Tara in bed but nothing intimate is shown. Reed highlights that the women are only seen in a sexual way in ‘Restless’ when Zander has an erotic dream about them. Overall, Reed seemed to suggest that TV representations of lesbians are still not very progressive. It is interesting to note, however, that she only looked at American TV and in particular at programmes which had their hayday in the nineties. It would be interesting to consider whether British TV of this period has any more progressive representations of lesbians (e.g. Queer as Folk?). It might be interesting too to consider American TV of the noughties which features lesbians, and I am thinking particularly of characters like Keema Greggs in The Wire. I am not so sure about Reed’s demand for visually obvious lesbians on TV, e.g. butch and femme identities. Perhaps the idea of a ‘visually obvious’ lesbian needs questioning – do butch and femme stereotypes need to be subverted too? – but I am with Reed in condemning the striking avoidance of honest, genuine scenes of lesbian intimacy.

The final paper on this panel was by Karen Schaller of UEA and it was on Elizabeth Bowen’s short story, ‘Dead Mabelle’. Schaller put forward an argument that Bowen writes this story in a language of the cinema that works with gaze, lighting, camerawork. Written in 1927, the story tells how Williams falls in love with a dead film star, and it describes the process of watching her films until he comes to her last. Mabelle’s films are not enduring art – her film reels are later melted down for patent leather. She is, however, a femme fatale whose excess of presence represents a lack. My notes on this paper are not absolutely complete, but Schaller’s analysis of how the cinema and the short story ‘accelerate together’ was especially fascinating.

Diasporic Intimacies Panel at 'Writings of Intimacy in the 20th and 21st Centuries'

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Diasporic Intimacies: Papers from Houlden, Ramone and Wolfe.

The first paper by Kate Houlden from Queen Mary was titled ‘Post-Colonial Intimacies: Andrew Salkey, Same-Sex Desire and the British Home’. In particular, Houlden studied the novel Escape to an Autumn Pavement, which, she argued, presented the figure of the “respectable homosexual”. Houlden noted that Salkey was black and gay and that the hero of Escape to an Autumn Pavement, Johnny, is middle class and Jamaican. Salkey’s specific perspective on British culture creates disorientations, according to Houlden, and it questions nature, home and belonging. The context of the novel was outlined in the light of 1950s moral panics and the tendency in this period to figure homosexuality as a threat to the nation state. Houlden mentioned the 1961 film Victim and Rodney Garland’s novel The Heart in Exile (1953). Having outlined the context of Salkey’s writing, Houlden mapped out how the gay couple in Escape to an Autumn Pavement aspire to heterosexual norms within the home. For example, one character, Dick, is described as having ‘brisk housewife movements’ (p. 52). Although, the conventional heterosexual norms of the British home do emerge in the lives of Salkey’s gay characters, Houlden argued that they are still victims of coercive language. What is clear, however, is that experience of repression by gay and black subjects are not exactly the same, and that, in the novel discussed, Salkey emphasizes different kinds of prejudice and resulting behaviours.

The next paper, ‘Spilt Ink: Retelling and the Motherly Body in Postcolonial Diaspora’ was presented by Jenni Ramone from Newman University College in Birmingham. I was really glad to see this paper as I missed it when Ramone was presenting it at the CWWN conference in San Diego in July of this year. Ramone’s paper focussed on a number of texts: Hanan Al-Shaykh’s The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story, Jamaica Kincaid’s Autobiogrpahy of my Mother and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoir of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. Kincaid’s pseudo-memoir tells how the Xuela’s mother died the day she was born, and later she aborts her own child viewing the motherly body as dangerous. Ramone is keen to note that Xuela is not diasporic, but is an alternate self for Kincaid: a self that stayed in the Caribbean. Ghosts in theses novels represent not only foreignness and the state of being an outcast, but the narrators themselves are ghostly witnesses in autobiography. So Ramone went on to discuss Hong Kingston’s memoir of growing up ‘Among Ghosts’. In this context, it is the American Chinese community who are ghosts, and Ramone describes how Hong Kingston’s women struggle to grapple with Chinese traditions in the context of the USA. Consequently, the woman warrior of the book’s title hides her maternal body and so lessens the prospect of marriage. Perhaps the most interesting text discussed was Al-Shaykh’s The Locust and the Bird, a book which expresses her ambiguous feelings about her mother, Camilla. Al-Shaykh is resistant to making the maternal body tangible and describes herself as having been given birth to by a voice. In thinking through her mother’s turbulent life and her attitude to it, however, photographs play a significant role. The first photograph shown seemed to display a group of children, but, in fact, it is a picture of Camilla, the child bride and mother, alongside her own children. The second is a picture of Camilla with her lover, and next to the figures are two deep scratches. Al-Shaykh tells that her mother scratched her and her sister out of the photograph, banishing them from her relationship with her lover, or perhaps hiding her shame at having taken her children along to one of their meetings.

The final paper by Jesse Wolfe (California State University) was titled ‘Intimate Passages to and From India’, and it was being developed out a book that Wolfe is writing on the influence of E.M. Forster. Wolfe focussed particularly on Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia focussing on Karim’s interracial eros and comparing it to the queer relationship of Aziz and Fielding in Passage to India. My notes on this paper are somewhat incomplete.

October 02, 2010

Why Poetry Matters: Love Poetry —–August/September 2010.

I recently joined the Nittany Valley Writer’s Network in Pennsylvania, and I have been trying to convince some of the other members of the wondrous nature of poetry. Consequently, they’ve asked me to write a column in the newsletter on “Why Poetry Matters”, the title taken from Jay Parini’s excellent book Why Poetry Matters.

Last month I talked about poetry and current financial crisis, but what could be further away from money than love? Love poetry has a long history and special significance, because it expresses both universal longings and a specific dedication to a particular person. Perhaps this is what is so wonderful about love poetry – that it represents a meeting of the personal and universal. The grief or longing expressed in love poetry is shared by the poet and the reader.

One of my favourite love poets is the Russian poet, Marina Tsvetaeva (sometimes spelled Tsvetayeva or Cvetaeva). Tsvetaeva is a somewhat tragic character; she lived through the Russian Revolution, she was exiled from Russia in the 1920s and 30s for her radical politics, and she died by hanging in 1941, an event which some suggest was murder rather than suicide. Apart from her heartbreaking life, Tsvetaeva’s love poems are legendary and they have the universal quality necessary for great love poems.

‘No one has taken away anything’ is a poem about being separated from someone you love, yet Tsvetaeva suggests that however far apart the lovers are, the relationship is still intact – no one can take anything away from them. Tsvetaeva goes on in the poem to express her unworthiness and she sets her lover free:

No one has ever stared more
tenderly or more fixedly after you…
I kiss you—across hundreds of
separating years.

Whether we’re straight or gay, whatever race, culture or religion we come from, we can all understand the message of desire, longing and grief in Tsvetaeva’s poem.

(See the full poem here:

For those interested in love poetry, I recommend the fabulous anthology, The Virago Book of Love Poetry, edited by Wendy Mulford.


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